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Painting a Story

Last year I took up painting after a break of several decades. I’ve been surprised by how much I love it, how much I’ve improved in a short time, and how much I’ve learned about the creative process itself—especially as it relates to writing.

“Paint what you see; not what you know.” This is a mantra my instructor, a talented artist, repeats often. It means that when you’re painting you can’t think about painting, say, the curve of a cheekbone. You have to think about painting a sphere, with a shadow shaped like a triangle underneath, with a crescent-shaped shadow above it—you get the idea. Once I truly understood this concept and started to actually look at things as their shapes and values and lines and not as the things themselves, my painting improved by the proverbial leaps and bounds. Something clicked, and I was able to translate what I saw onto paper.

I’ve always been a slow writer. I don’t outline, but I have a general idea of where I’m going. I write a page or two then go back and edit it all before I move on. I write synopses of each chapter as I finish them. And man, do I get bogged down. So I’m trying something new. I’m writing like I’m making a painting. Here’s how:

Start with an underlying sketch, working with the biggest shapes. The “underlying sketch” in writing is the one or two sentence summary of what your story is and who the main characters are. An anxious mom wants to protect her kids so she moves them to an island to live off the grid for a year. A woman forced to sell a house she loves decides to burn it down so no one else can ever have it. For me, the underlying sketch also includes an idea of the story’s climax, so I know what I’m writing toward.

Block in with average values. This is the step in painting (at least with pastels, the medium I work with) in which you lightly fill in the shapes with average colors for each object, so the colors exert their influence right from the start. In writing, I think of this as the stage where the personality of each character is established, so every decision, action, and reaction that happens next is true to who that person is. Characters in the best novels don’t do something because it’s what the author thinks needs to happen in the plot; they do things because that’s who they are and they can’t act in any other way. This is the stage where you find each character’s voice in dialogue, lightly color in the backstories that have made them who they are, and develop a clearer idea of the arc of your story.

Put in the shadow areas. “Be sure to get the darkest darks in early in the development,” my teacher says. The dark areas in painting are what give works their depth and richness. I believe this is true in fiction, too. You need to know your characters’ shadows—their flaws, their vulnerabilities, their mistakes, their regrets, their losses. These “darks” shape character, in real life and in fiction. If you don’t know your characters’ darks, you don’t know fully know your characters.

Stand back and evaluate. Go back to the beginning and read straight through your story to the point where you left off. Does the story make sense? Does it hold together as a whole? Is it compelling? At this stage I often can see a theme—usually one word—emerge in the story that defines it as a whole. Loss. Integrity (wholeness). Home. Stand back from your story. What do you see?

The fun part: Developing shapes, modifying colors, layers of rich color, the details and highlights. Write your heart out. Let your story bloom.

What’s your creative process like?

About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.